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A Labor of Love

When the chimes ring out on the fifth floor of St. Joseph’s Hospital Health Center in Syracuse, Chris Vona can’t help but smile. Those soft tones alert the staff that a new baby has been delivered.

As a nurse and director of the childbirth education programs, Vona has probably met the new parents at least once before their child is born.

Vona, a lifelong Central New York resident, has spent her entire nursing career at St. Joseph’s. She began in 1981 and has been in her current role for the past 15 years. She is mother to a grown son and a daughter who graduated from Liverpool High School this past June.

Vona says she still enjoys sharing her birth experiences with her patients, and she never tires of their questions as they face their own deliveries.

St. Joseph’s, Crouse, and Community General hospitals all offer childbirth education classes. Expectant moms can learn about the various offerings through their doctors and Vona says all three hospitals have scholarship programs to offset the costs. Family Times caught up with Vona in between visits with her former students—now brand-new mothers and fathers.

Q: How did you get into nursing?

A: I’ve always wanted to be a nurse, since I was very young. I had a sister who was in the hospital. I saw that the nurses helped her, and that inspired me to be a nurse. It’s helped me, definitely, professionally and personally.
I’ve always liked maternity and been a newborn care and postpartum nurse. I love the teaching aspect. We’ve always taught our own classes here at St. Joe’s and so when I had my kids and they were very little, that’s primarily what I used to do—teach the classes. And then as my children started getting older and getting into school, this coordinator position opened up and I’ve coordinated and taught the classes since then.

Q: How do you assess the needs of expectant families?

A: We look at the needs of new moms and what we would like them to know prior to coming in and having their babies. So we adjust that to fit their needs. The Fit & Healthy Pregnancy class is a good example. We wanted them to come in early in their pregnancy and know about healthy pregnancy, but we see that people wanted more exercises and relaxation and we can do that in a broader span of time, not just early on. So the attendance has surpassed what we had in the Early Pregnancy class last year already.

Q: Tell me a little more about the Newborn Care class.

A: That class talks about primarily those first few weeks of life. We bring in one of our babies; with the mom’s permission—she usually comes too—and we then show them what a newborn looks like, how it would react. And we give it a sponge bath because usually in the first few weeks, they have to do sponge baths on the baby.
We show them how to do cord care, how to use the bulb suction to clear nasal passages. We discuss the typical behavior of a newborn—you know, “Don’t feel bad that it cries; it’s not hating you, it’s normal,” how to change a diaper, how to wrap a baby, hold the baby.
It’s amazing how many people have not had a lot of experience with newborns, especially partners are kind of nervous about holding babies, so we have models—dolls, life-sized baby models. They can practice holding them and changing them. They can hold them in different positions and get a little more comfortable.

Q: I imagine all the classes have been altered a bit over the years. Breastfeeding is something I’ll bet more women want to know about today than, say, 10 to 15 years ago.

A: I would say 70 percent of all moms do start out breastfeeding. Then—depending on their success and help and their needs—(it’s a question of) how long they do continue to breastfeed.

Q: Have things changed in the labor and delivery classes in terms of what moms are advised to do leading up to delivery?

A: You know, labor hasn’t changed at all. What we’ve done with laboring moms has definitely changed. We definitely encourage them to be more active about practicing before they come in; little, short times, but often. I will tell a mom to do the breathing by herself in different positions six or seven times a day. Then your partner is going to do this with you three minutes or four minutes, once or twice a day. That way, not only are you moms getting ready, but you’re working with your partner. The more often you do this, it’s going to be more natural to you when you go into labor. I try to have them thinking of them being in different positions and how they can be moving and breathing. I always tell them three basic things: Move, breathe and relax. If you remember those three things, those are going to help you in labor.
We like to focus on practical things they feel they can do. We don’t want to make it too complicated. Get an exercise ball and just sit on it. Just sit and move around on it a little bit—it also gets you in a good position. It relaxes your back and your hips. Just sit on it 20 minutes a day.

Q: Would you say expectant moms are learning more about how to stay moving farther into their labor than perhaps their mothers told them?

A: Right! The idea of staying in bed ... I tell them, “Don’t picture yourself staying in bed in labor. That’s a long, boring labor.” I say, “Don’t picture yourself delivering—the pushing. That’s only a short part of it. Picture yourself doing five different things throughout your labor. Being in bed is not one of them.” People who do use (these techniques) have the most positive feelings about the birth. Because even if it ends in a C-section, they feel they have had some control over their birth.

Q: What are new parents most concerned about today?

A: Getting through the labor. Everybody wants that and the Newborn Care class. And then breastfeeding. Even if they are not planning to breastfeed, I give them the information for the class. I say, “You can make a more informed decision once you have all the information. Then it is your choice.”
Another thing moms are concerned with is doing something embarrassing during labor. But you’re not going to do anything weird that we haven’t seen. People think they are going to be so concerned with certain things, but when the time comes, your main concern is just pushing that baby out. It’s like Vegas—what happens in the labor room stays in the labor room.

Q: What about Dad?

A: Dads are very concerned about how they can help their partners through labor. I tell them, “Let’s talk about what we can do.” I take them into a labor room and show them the things we can do with the bed, or an exercise ball. “Can you rub her back? Can you walk with her and get her ice chips? Sit with her while she’s in the tub?” Well, there you go.
I also suggest bringing someone else along. Bring someone along so the burden isn’t all on Dad. The mother can have two people in the delivery, as long as they are both helpful, both attentive to Mom.

Q: Do you see any trends coming up that you think you will have to incorporate into the courses?

A: Well, I think the exercise ball is kind of the biggest new thing that has come up in the last five years. They are helpful in labor, whether they sit on them or lean on them. You see childbirth education classes using birthing balls and hospitals having them in the rooms.
Epidural trends are very big. More and more people are using epidurals (a type of anesthesia injected through a catheter in the spine). When I had my kids, it wasn’t encouraged or done. Now everyone knows about it and they are thinking it’s the best thing since sliced toast. But it can be an asset or a hindrance on your labor, depending how it’s used.

Q: Has the Internet made your job more difficult?

A: No, people come to class much more informed. Before, they were open slates; whatever we said to them, they just pretty much took in. Now, we have to be accountable for what we are saying. I always do a survey to see what (Web) sites they are reading, what books they are reading. They are much more informed coming to classes, and they will challenge you.

Q: Do families give you feedback on the classes after they have delivered their babies?

A: Oh, I see them all the time. Some days, I go from labor room to labor room just to see them. I’ll spend some time with them. I think the classes empower people. Because knowledge is power. Then you can make informed decisions about the course you want to take with anything. And you make us accountable. I have to be a good nurse for you; you don’t have to be a good patient for me. You learn this stuff, I do this stuff for you.

If you let people do it the way they want to, in the medical profession, they’ll do it the way that’s easiest for them. When doctors started being questioned by patients, and medical staff started being questioned, we had to give them more choices—”Let’s try it this way.”

We change our practice to meet people’s needs. People are health care consumers. That’s a very powerful title to give somebody. You have no idea how many people come in and say, “I’m new to the area and I want to check out all the hospitals because I’m going to become pregnant.” Those are my favorite people. Come! Let me tell you what we have.

Q: I’m sure you have so many rewards to your job.

A: The most rewarding is seeing that the information you gave was helpful for (patients). They were empowered by it, and they had an outcome that they feel comfortable with. You always like to hear that everything went well, but even if it doesn’t, that the information you gave us helped us.

You see dads walking on air afterwards. They’ll say, “Thank you so much. It gave me a new perspective on everything.” That’s what I’m here for—and it will keep me here. I will retire here, I’m sure. I told my husband, “If we win the lottery, I keep working.” I love my job. Every day is a reward here. I always see someone I had in my class. I can teach any one of the classes we talked about and I do.

Q: And the challenges?

A: There are many challenges. The challenges are those people who come to class, but they have their own agenda. It doesn’t matter what you say, they still have their own agenda. Sometimes it is hard to open their minds to see different aspects of what’s available to them. You don’t have to agree with me, but agree to understand that what I’m saying may be helpful. If you still want to do it your way, that’s fine and it may work.

Also, sometimes we will find unsafe relationships that we pick up on; providing help for them has come up a few times. When they are in situations of abuse or neglect, it’s hard to accept help. We have a great social worker here on the unit, and she can be utilized for anybody at any time.

Q: Are moms offered support once they go home?

A: You can call us 24/7; we don’t close! (Laughs.)

© Family Times: The Parenting Guide of Central New York